Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
"Rich blocks, poor blocks."
Judging by the viral spread of an eponymous YouTube video this week, there seems to be an insatiable desire for visual demonstrations of America's wealth inequality.
We've run several such graphics showing the geography of economic segregation in cities and metro areas. But for the majority of the nation's cities, that information doesn't usually attract enough attention to produce graphic representation. Atlanta, yes; Savannah, not so much.
On a new website, Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks, data journalist Chris Persaud has punched the American Community Survey data on rent and income into a map of U.S. census tracts. The map is both interactive and visible at different zoom levels, so you can see highly detailed data in dense urban areas one minute, and statewide patterns the next.
Without detailed study, the maps of income and rent tend to correspond pretty exactly. (Unfortunately, the color scheme is quite different, so the visual comparison take some effort.)
Here's Baltimore by income, from red (low) to green (high):
And here's Baltimore by rent, from beige (low) to scarlet (high), showing that similar inversion pattern so peculiar to American cities:
Rent and income aren't identical. Gentrifying neighborhoods might have a higher ratio of rent to income, and suburban areas have the opposite. And there's a lot more disparity in income (a factor of five or six between the low averages and the high) than there is in rent (closer to a factor of three). But the distinctions are only visible on a case-by-case basis.
As an off-the-cuff example, I looked at two neighborhoods in Washington D.C. Census tract 106, an urban district which curls around Union Station in Northeast Washington, has a high average income -- $76,680 -- and a very high average monthly rent -- $1,702. Census tract 4, which is a more suburban area near the Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington, has an average income nearly twice that -- $182,578 -- but a slightly lower monthly rent, $1,569.
In addition to city-level analysis, Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks lets you look at states, where the distribution of wealth can be even more strikingly variable.
Here's Pennsylvania, where the difference between the Philadelphia Metro Area and Pittsburgh and the rest of the state is quite pronounced.
And here's Virginia, where the contrast between the D.C. suburbs and the southern half of the state is even more extreme:
All images courtesy of Rich Blocks, Poor Blocks.